O’Neil D. Swanson, president of Swanson Funeral Homes, Inc., has been involved in the Black church all of his life.
“I come from a family that’s deeply in traditional religion, it’s been a part of my life,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘are you thinking about going to church?’, it was just something that we did because the Lord was always at the head of my life, at the head of our household.”
He looked forward to attending Sunday school from a very early age; he was teaching Sunday school before he was 12 years old.
“It’s just been an integral part of our lives, and of course we can never say too much of the Black church, because I feel the Black church has always been in the vanguard of the struggle.”
Swanson believes that had it not been for the Black church, Black people as a whole probably would have have fared as well as they have.
He said during the times of slavery and Jim Crow, regardless of how old a Black person was or how much education he or she had, he or she was addressed as “boy” or “girl.”
“And, of course, being possibly intimidated, working in White folks’ kitchen and working in the fields, doing manual labor from sunup to sundown,” he said.
“And of course it was the Black church where you could go and be somebody. You could be sister somebody or brother somebody. A place that you could go and be president of the usher board, president of the choir, president of the various auxiliaries. It was a place we could go and be somebody. It was someplace where you could just go and be somebody when all week long you had been nobody.” He added that it was an extension of family as he was growing up.
“And of course back then we didn’t have the mega-churches, we didn’t have the TV evangelists,” he said. “We didn’t have television. And I can’t even remember, back in those years, too many radio evangelists. I think it was more (personal connection) then than it is now.”
He has no problem admitting that he is old-fashioned when it comes to religion.
“I know what it has personally meant to me, and I know what it has personally done for me in moments of trials, in moments when I didn’t know what to do or where to turn,” he said. He was sustained by his faith.
Swanson is not knocking the modern tendency to have rock and/or rap music during some services, but it’s not for him.
“Maybe I’m out of sync or out of touch, but for some reason, I’m holding on to the old time,” he said, adding that if he wanted to be entertained, he’d go to a venue like the Palace or the Fox Theatre.
He assumes churches that use such techniques are successful in bringing in younger audiences.
“I guess it’s working for them, and maybe it does bring in young people,” he said. “Maybe that’s the future.”
Asked about accomplishments the faith-based community has made over the last 50 years, Swanson said it’s brought a lot of people together and done good works in the community.
He cited the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., efforts involving integration and voter education.
“You can look at any basic movement that has happened in the United States since we have been here, and you go back to the church,” Swanson said, adding that many historically black colleges sprung from the church.
“A lot of our good Christian White brothers and sisters have helped to establish many of our colleges and institutes,” he added.
“The Civil Rights Movement is built around the Black church,” he said. “Voter rights. Breaking down the barriers of segregation, integrating the police department, getting our people in jobs in places where it was never thought of.”
He said 40 years ago, a Black person working at a bank would be a custodian, not a guard or a teller, much less a blanch manager.
Asked how he prepares his presentations at area churches, Swanson said he gets prayerful and reads a lot.
“I ask for guidance,” he said. “I can’t do it by myself.”
Swanson said we need to go back to the teachings of Bible.
“It’s just simple things. To treat each other like we want to be treated,” he said. “We are our brother’s keeper.”
He feels strongly that cities, the nation and the whole world would be better off if we went back to practicing the Golden Rule.